The Golden Age
Niels W.GADE (1817-1890)
Nordic Tone Pictures Op.4 [8:38]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Pictures from the East Op.66 [19:15]
Three Character Pieces Op.18 [9:55]
Bridal Waltz [2:35]
Bridal and Silver Wedding Anniversary Waltz [1:09]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Fantasy in f minor Op.103/D940 [20:00]
Copenhagen Piano Duo: Tonya Lemoh & Cathrine Penderup
rec. 2017, venue not given
DANACORD DACOCD786 [64:00]
Although the description that this disc contains “The complete works of Niels W. Gade for piano duet” implies rather more than a total of 9 short pieces it is nevertheless a welcome addition to the relatively small number of recordings of pieces for piano duet. Today the name of Danish composer Niels Gade is not well known, although in his day he was clearly highly thought of as a painting on the inside cover of the insert, showing him wearing a ring given him by Mendelssohn attests to, Mendelssohn also conducted the premičre of his first symphony. Born in Copenhagen 20 years after Schubert and 7 years after Schumann he was composer, violinist, organist and conductor. As the insert points out his name G-A-D-E spells out the letter names of the open strings on the violin and like Bach before him and Shostakovich after him (DSCH) he enjoyed weaving his name into his compositions.
His first works for piano duet, his Nordic Tone Pictures Op.4 also show a musical debt to Mendelssohn, by whom he was persuaded to work as his assistant in Leipzig for five years and through whom he also became a close friend of Robert and Clara Schumann. It is interesting to read, therefore, that despite Mendelssohn conducting the first performance of Gade’s first symphony Clara Schumann wrote disparagingly of it, declaring that there were few original thoughts and that there was rather too much “evidence of Schubert” and that his propensity for using Nordic themes soon palls “as does all “national music”.”
Has the passage of time changed our perception of Gade’s music? Surely it has changed our view of “national music”. Miklós Rozsa used to say though he felt a citizen of the world musically he never left Hungary and surely there cannot be many who find that his music “becomes monotonous”. Though no one could class Gade among the greats, nevertheless his music merits attention and it gives pleasure. By the time he wrote his Three Character Pieces Op.18 his style had become more mature and personal. His Bridal and Silver Wedding Anniversary Waltz is an example of his weaving his name’s letters into his music writing on the score “Gade congratulates the wife, the husband and the whole family”.
Though Robert Schumann also criticised Gade’s music where he felt compelled to, he also gave praise where he felt it merited it as with Gade’s work Comala calling it one of the period’s most significant works and composed a work of his own using the letters G-A-D-E as a tribute while Gade dedicated his Sonata for Violin and Piano in D minor, op.21 to Schumann as well as conducting many of Schumann’s works, probably during his tenure as Chief conductor of Leipzig’s famous Gewandhaus orchestra following Mendelssohn’s death. It is fitting, therefore, to have Schumann’s Bilder aus Osten on the disc. This work he wrote for Clara, inspired by illustrations he found in a book of Arabic poetry in a friend’s library and he and Clara performed it in that same friend’s house. Once again and not wishing to paint Gade in a poor light it is clear when listening to these pieces who the greater composer is for Schumann’s piano-genius shines through and while there is no hint of ‘national’ style, despite their inspiration, Schumann’s musical signature is easy to identify.
The final work on the disc is Schubert’s Fantasy in f minor which has become a glittering jewel within the piano duet repertoire and, as the notes explain, incorporates all the core elements that make the genre special, namely symphonic scope at the same time as “intimacy and subtlety”. Like Schumann’s ‘pictures’ Schubert’s writing is characteristically brilliant and has his hand of genius imprinted throughout and even those who don’t know it will immediately identify its author. Its largely austere nature, so often a feature of Schubert’s writing, is what makes it attractive to me and, I’m sure, countless millions of others. Its substantial length allows Schubert all the time he needs to lay out this wonderful canvas before us with all its subtle changes of mood and its occasional glimpses of sunshine amid the dark clouds.
Piano duets are, I imagine, difficult to play and I feel that the listener is most satisfied when it seems one person with four hands is playing; sometimes it was more obvious here that two people were playing and the timing seemed to slip a little between them on occasion but generally it was a pleasing performance of two major works for piano duet with the addition of some by a neglected contemporary.
Previous review: John France